Bathing in Antarctica
Several years ago I was on an antarctic expedition. You fly down to the Terra del Fuego, to the very south of South America, to the most southern town in the world. They call it “el fin del mundo”, the end of the world. And then you take an expedition ship to Antarctica, you go, so to say, beyond the end of the world.
Of course you can get through to the antarctic shore only during the summer months in the southern hemisphere (january-february). That’s when the temperature at the shore of the antarctic peninsula varies between summer-like -15 and +5 degrees celsius, the never setting sun lets the pack ice crush, and the streams of the convergence zone let the icebergs travel northwards.
Don’t let yourself be fooled. It is very windy and freezing cold in Antarctica even during the summer, even on the shore. I have never worn so much clothes as I did there. Three pairs of socks and two winter jackets worn simultaneously, one on top of another. The cold is getting deep into your body.
The water temperature varies around zero degrees celsius and even when it gets below zero it still doesn’t freeze due to the salt in it.
If you fall into this water you have maybe 2 minutes to get rescued. First: you get an immediate temperature shock, which takes your breath away and you are lucky if your heart doesn’t stop in this moment. Second: your body, in order to protect your inner organs, draws the blood out of your extremities. As a result, your arms and legs go numb and you completely lose the feeling and the power over your limbs. You can’t move and you just drown like a stone. Even the best swimmer can’t defy the laws of physics.
But we have this crazy idea: Let’s try to take a bath here. We find an island with a snow-free, gravel beach and a flat shore and decide to have our shot there. The air temperature is around minus 10 degrees celsius and a biting wind.
The first guy goes only up to the knees into the water. Maybe 3-5 meters into the sea. He manages to stand there for maybe 30 seconds. During his futile tries to convince himself to dive into the water, people are taking pictures of him. After 30 seconds he gives up and wants to get back to the shore. But it turns out to be harder as expected. His legs got numb and he completely lost the feeling in them. He can hardly stand on them. He now walks like on stilts and he makes it to the shore with greatest effort.
Now, it’s my turn. I am not going to do it step by step, hesitate or waver. This would only damper my zeal. I am going to take a run-up and dive into water without thinking.
And this is exactly what I do.
I don’t know if you ever have jumped into water having zero degrees celsius. You feel an instantaneous pain, the skin burns, the legs and arms tingle and you feel a dull ache in your feet and hands, probably as the blood is retreating from them.
But don’t ask me how it feels after that. I just don’t remember because…I got a post shock amnesia. This is probably the moment I got the shock and where the amnesia kicked in. All I describe from now on I know from what the people watching it told me and from what I saw on the pictures they had taken.
Imagine this: Apparently after my short dive I reemerge and I am screaming like a crazy animal, waving my hands in bizarre movements, splashing the water and shouting incomprehensible words mixed with wild howls. It is a matter of seconds. Then I run to the beach again and am rolling in sand and gravel on the shore, apparently in the hope to warm myself up. People watching me in their double winter jackets with hoods and gloves. Then I realize I am pretty dirty now and I have to dive again into water in order to wash down the dirt. After that I finally get back to the beach, run around a little bit and scream til my throat is soar to cool down my emotions, feeling the ice-cold, biting wind burning my skin. Then I dry myself on the towel and get dressed again.
Can you believe I didn’t get sick after that?
What do you think of this? Did you have similar experiences? How did you feel, what did you perceive?